Historic ‘Heaven Can Wait’ Home in Thunderbird Heights Bulldozed

 

Once the home of hotelier and playboy, Hyatt von Dehn, who gave his name to the Hyatt hotel chain, the 8,000 sq ft mansion stood on a prominent 2+ acre site.

Before granting the demolition permit, the city conducted only one review: for the presence of asbestos. This according to Peter Moruzzi, chairman of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the modernist heritage of the area. He says: "Even in 2002, the iconic work of a world-renowned architect such as Richard Neutra can be destroyed with an over-the-counter permit in many American cities. No public comment, no public review. This is an outrage which must be corrected." Moruzzi wants to convince cities to enact historic preservation ordinances to at least allow public review before such properties are torn down.
 
The original owners were collectors of modern art who had commissioned Neutra to design the house to combine their ideas with his and those of of Frank Lloyd Wright. According to Barbara Mac Lamprecht, author of Neutra: Complete Works, the Maslon House was "a residential palazzo of art that embodied sophisticated abstractions about positive and negative space in a structure that was equally sophisticated in construction... beautiful materials used to accomplish richer human relationships with the outdoors and with other humans, placed in ways that spoke to the beauty of asymmetry."
 
Richard Neutra is considered one of the world's most influential architects. He responded to the Southern California climate with designs in which indoor and outdoor spaces flow freely together and into a carefully arranged landscape. He believed that modern architecture should act as a social force in the betterment of mankind.
ArchitectureWeek:  Neutra House in Palm Springs Destroyed
City Recends Historic Designation on 1937 Model Home
 
September 2019.
  The City of Rancho Mirage recended historic resource designation on 71785 Sahara Road at the request of the owners.  Subsequently, the house has been substantially renovated.  The home was designed by Van Pelt & Lind in 1937 and was one of the city's earliest and most important homes from the pre-country club era when Magnesia Falls was known as Rancho Mirage.
 

May 1, 2020.  Preservationists and architecture fans across the greater Palm Springs area were shocked to hear that another valuable piece of the valley’s midcentury architectural legacy had been lost to demolition. It was the Hyatt von Dehn Residence, also known as the ‘Heaven Can Wait’ house in the exclusive Thunderbird Heights community of Rancho Mirage. The property was a sprawling mansion comprising seven bedrooms in 8,000 square feet on more than two acres, designed by desert architect Howard Lapham in 1960. It was the subject of a cover story for Architectural Digest magazine in 1961. The house was famously remodeled in the late 1960s by Palm Springs designer Arthur Elrod for Mr. & Mrs. Roy Woods from Oklahoma and the home was again featured in Architectural Digest.

The historic hillside home had been on the market for at least two years when it finally sold last August. Neighbors were hopeful that the house would be restored to its original Lapham design; but on Thursday, a neighbor (and Preservation Mirage board member) noticed bulldozers were at the property and demolition was well underway. By the end of the day there was nothing left of the main house; only the tennis court cabana (a later addition by designer Arthur Elrod) remained.

Preservation Mirage president, Melissa Riche, says “We are devastated by the loss of this valuable piece of Rancho Mirage’s historic legacy. Many people buy in Rancho Mirage specifically for its rich cultural and architectural history.”

The city of Rancho Mirage commissioned a historic resources survey in 2002, following the highly contentious demolition of the Maslon Residence by famed modernist architect Richard Neutra. Although the Hyatt von Dehn residence is referenced in the Context Statement of the survey in conjunction with Howard Lapham’s other work, most notably ‘Ichpa Mayapan’ in Thunderbird Heights, it was unfortunately not on the city’s list for historic designation.
Preservation in Rancho Mirage is strictly voluntary
 
The City of Rancho Mirage was embarrassed by the sudden demolition of the Maslon House in 2002. Embarrassed enough that it adopted an ordinance which allows for the official designation of historic resources and provides some level of protection against their demolition and alteration.  (See Rancho Mirage Municipal Code, Chapter 15.27.)  Thus, it this is reasonable for one to ask:  If the city has a historic preservation program, why are so many historic homes still being demolished?

The dirty little secret is that the city’s historic preservation ordinance cannot prevent a property owner from demolishing an historic property:  Paragraph 15.27.140(H) states “Nothing in this chapter shall permit the city to deny a building application for demolition of a historic resource…”


ArchitectureWeek:  Neutra House in Palm Springs Destroyed
 
April 24, 2002.  Preservationists and admirers of modern architecture were angered to learn of the surprise demolition last month of the Samuel and Luella Maslon House. This house in Rancho Mirage, California, designed in 1962 by Richard Neutra, was a celebrated residential work by the modernist master.
 
The new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Richard J. Rotenberg of Hopkins, Minnesota, had recently purchased the property for $2.45 million. They had the building destroyed within 30 days of taking possession.

The historic 1937 Model Home before (left) and after (right).

While the ordinance gives the city an arura of civic minded historic preservation, in fact, the program is entirely voluntary.  This point was emphatically stated by Charles Townsend during the May 21, 2020, city council meeting (click on the image at right to listen).  Townsend casts historic preservation as a “delicate balance” between valuing the city’s historic past and private property rights.  He is, of course, ignoring decades of court cases including the Penn Central Transportation v. City of New York where, in 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that local landmark designation was not a taking because the property owner retained the same or greater beneficial economic use of the site as it had before designation.

Formal historic designation recognizes the character of a property as important to preserving the aesthetic features and physical environment of the community, but it does not impose any obligations on the owners beyond normal maintenance. Therefore, designation alone is never a “taking” of private property because the owner retains both title to and use of the landmarked property.  Far from eliminating ownership of private property, designation is solely intended to establish an administrative process for reviewing privately-proposed changes to historic properties for the benefit of the entire community in which the landmark is located.

To save the character or our neighborhoods, the City of Rancho Mirage must strengthen its preservation ordinance and identify existing properties that define its character.